I traveled on Hapag-Lloyd container ships for six weeks to document the work and the life that takes places on board. Coming from Hamburg, I’m often down by the Elbe River and watch the giant ships entering and leaving the port. It’s always been my dream to ride along on a container ship, to go ashore with the sailors at the next port and see what they see on their travels. In my imagination, I’d be sitting all night with the sailors in a bar by the port in the Caribbean, and we’d leave it around dusk to sail out of the port as the sun rises.
Reality was very different. The time spent in the port is becoming shorter and shorter. The ships are often in port less than a day before heading out again. There’s hardly any time to go on shore.
We all have so many products that were brought to us by ship. Electronics, food, clothing – a lot of things are transported in container ships. 90% of international trade is shipped by sea. It doesn’t take a lot of people to sail a container ship. At Hapag-Lloyd, a crew is made up of 22 men and women. The seafarers are on board for up to eight months and can only contact their friends and family via the internet while in port. With this project, I wanted to give a human face to the seafarers who go without so much on their travels so that we don’t have to go without anything and can buy products from around the world at the store around the corner from our homes.
This project was not commissioned. It was a very personal report. I wanted to tell this story. Which is why it was met with considerable skepticism from the ship management department at Hapag-Lloyd. Initially, no one was interested in giving a photographer a look at life on board. And why should they? It took about a year and a half of convincing before I finally got the green light. In the end, a major corporation decided to set aside its concerns and saw it for what it was: an opportunity to tell the stories of the people on board, away from the “big business” focused on freight rates, efficiency and growth. Without these people, the ships wouldn’t sail.
I flew to Singapore in September 2016. From there, I was going to be traveling with the “Leverkusen Express” (13,200 TEU) via Taiwan and South Korea to China. I put a lot of thought before the trip into which equipment I was going to use to take the photos for my report. I decided pretty quickly to take the Leica, since that is the smallest system on the market that features a full-frame sensor. I had already been on board a container ship once before in 2013. At the time, I had photographed everything using an Olympus OM-D. That worked really well, since I had all the important things with me in a little bag when I was moving around the ship. Size and weight aren’t an issue on the ship. Theoretically I could take along equipment of any size, but I wanted to have the important pieces with me at all times so that I wouldn’t have to run back to my cabin if something interesting was happening somewhere. It’s also very narrow in a lot of places, so a big DSLR wasn’t an option for that reason. But I still wanted to have the big sensor combined with fixed focal lengths that handle different types of lighting well. In addition to that, I really like the look of the pictures that come out of a Leica M and it seemed really well suited for the report.
At the time, I had an M240 and a Q. My biggest problem was having a backup. What would happen if my camera broke while I was at sea? If the M were to break, I’d only have the Q. As far as I know, Leica doesn’t currently offer high-seas repair services. So I borrowed a second M240 body. The Leica headquarters in Wetzlar, Germany, were nice enough to loan me a replacement body for the project. And that was really good. When I arrived in Singapore, I realized that my M wasn’t focusing properly anymore. The pictures weren’t quite coming out sharp. The alignment of the rangefinder was obviously off. It probably happened during transport in my carry-on luggage. I might have knocked into something with the camera. Luckily, I had the backup, which I used for the entire trip.
There’s something I like to call the “Leica factor.” Once we were on board, it took a few days for the crew to warm up to me. At first, I was an outsider and the crew treated me skeptically. Slowly but surely, though, the seafarers eased up. I told them exactly what I was doing and what the idea behind the project was – that I wanted to tell their stories. At some point, they became pretty proud to be part of this report. The “Leica factor” always kicks in when you go up to other people holding an M. For people who don’t keep up with photography, the camera kind of looks different, maybe a little old-fashioned. Some even think it’s an analog camera. They’re curious about what kind of a camera it is and why someone who claims to be a professional photographer is working with a little thing like that. That was often a conversation starter on board. The pilots in Korea and Hong Kong were particularly interested in the project and the photo tech.
I try not to ascribe too much importance to the gear, but the red dot does have a certain allure. My second trip was from Valparaiso in Chile, through the Panama Canal, to Cartagena in Colombia. The ship was the brand new “Valparaiso Express,” which was also christened in Valparaiso. I was supposed to take a few photos for Hapag-Lloyd to document the christening ceremony. For the official press photo, I was standing there with my little M between about ten other photographers with huge DSLRs. There wasn’t a lot of time, so I called called out “Everyone look at the photographer with the little camera!” and looked out over the camera as I laughed. That got their attention immediately and I got my picture – with everybody actually looking at the camera. That’s what I call the “Leica factor.”